The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has told the gay magazine PinkNews it is “great” that parliament passed a measure he opposed, leaving his aides scrambling to explain that all he meant was that it is great that parliament can and does pass laws. Welby, who campaigned and voted against gay marriage last year, remains opposed both to gay marriage and homophobia, his office explained.
This spin is probably justified. Welby has an impetuous and enthusiastic manner when talking informally. He certainly would not want to announce a change of position or policy without careful preparation to minimise the resulting split. There is not even any hard evidence that he is himself changing his mind on the substantive issue. But there are increasing signs that the official line cannot hold for much longer. Pressure is building from both supporters and opponents of gay marriage.
Last month, Canon Jeremy Pemberton became the first priest in the Church of England to defy the House of Bishops and marry his male partner. There will undoubtedly be others, and it is still not clear how they can be disciplined. On the traditionalist side, one of the most prominent and successful independent church leaders, the Rev Steve Chalke, has been thrown out of the Evangelical Alliance, a group that claims to represent 2 million Christians inside and outside the Church of England, as a result of his support for equal marriage and gay rights.
African Anglican churches have already demanded that Pemberton and priests who follow his example be disciplined. Conservative evangelicals have established a sort of Church of England in exile whose bridgehead is a church in south London, which is run by one of Welby’s mentors in the church. The threat of a formal schism spreading to England remains.
But the logic of Welby’s own position is moving him away from the certainties of his youth. The more he denounces homophobia, the more difficult it becomes for him to defend discrimination against gay people within the church. He opened this week with a rousing denunciation of homophobic bullying in church schools, but within days his office was explaining that this was simply because he was opposed to all bullying on any grounds.
Meanwhile, conservatives don’t see anything wrong with homophobia except perhaps the word itself. The churches in Nigeria and Uganda have recently passed laws that criminalise even the advocacy of same-sex relationships. In the case of Uganda, they provide for life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality”. They cling to a resolution passed by a gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world in 1998 that condemned “unjustified discrimination against homosexuals”, but it is difficult to imagine any discrimination that some of them would not now consider justified.
Just to make the archbishop’s troubles worse, he has now been publicly supported by Nick Clegg, who told PinkNews: “Love is equal in the eyes of British law, but that right was hard won. We have to fight even harder for universal human rights, including LGBT freedoms, globally.” He is unlikely to announce that he now agrees with Clegg.